Black Atlass aims to be Montreal’s Kanye

Ontario’s other indie R&B wunderkind Black Atlass, aka Alex Fleming, talks about his American idol, his plans to move to la belle province and the pros and cons of working in the shadow of the Weeknd.

Black Atlass, aka Alex Fleming, photo by Vincent Tsang

Few things make me feel older than listening to a quality piece of music produced by someone 10 years my junior.

Snowdon-born, London, Ont.-raised and soon-to-be Montreal resident (as of next spring) Alex Fleming is 18 years old and only graduated from high school this past June, yet his self-produced eponymous debut EP under the nom de plume Black Atlass is a remarkably poised new entry into the burgeoning world of dark, opaque R&B.

Although Fleming is a fan of Toronto’s the Weeknd, considered the torchbearer of the indie R&B movement, the producer and singer is more keen on flexing his musical muscles in the studio, à la Kanye West. His only recorded output so far, a free downloadable EP, was created on his laptop, but Fleming says all future work will be done in the studio.

He only has a handful of shows under his belt, including his first official gig at this year’s Pop Montreal. It was an impressive debut, even though it was just him singing on stage, accompanied by a DJ providing the music and background projections.

I spoke to Fleming about moving to Montreal, his ambitious future goals and getting into the studio.

Erik Leijon: How did you get into music?

Black Atlass: I started playing music at a young age, when I moved to London. My mom got me into piano lessons, and I took them for five years. I lost interest in playing music when I entered high school, but at that point I started exploring different genres and building my own tastes in music. That’s when I really got into hip hop; that’s where I saw people producing for the first time in the style I’m doing now. I was just having fun with it at first, but I started working with a couple of friends of mine [fellow Last Night Collective members Bond and Odon] who were rappers. I always wanted to try singing, though, so I just went for it, produced my own songs and put things together.

EL: How long did it take for you to get the Black Atlass sound?

BA: I spent about a year figuring out my own sound, producing-wise, and not even the writing side of it. Then when I started writing, I found myself inspired by Montreal, actually, so the first song I wrote was “Paris,” and that was Montreal-influenced. That’s really what started the whole project. Most of my family still lives in Montreal, so I would always visit three or four times a year.

EL: Was hip hop your primary influence starting out?

BA: I was into hip hop production, mostly. That’s what initially inspired me to go that route — seeing an artist like Kanye West working in the studio, being himself and bringing his personality, but also producing for other people.

EL: What’s your production set-up right now — laptop, mostly? BA: So far it has been. I’m going to move to in-studio production for all my new stuff now. I’m looking forward to a bigger set-up and creating something more polished, more professional.

EL: Do you play any other instruments besides piano? Are you going to play instruments in the studio?

BA: I play guitar, drums, bass, and I played trumpet in high school. I might be, but I’m more interested in overseeing and arranging a production and bringing in artists who are really passionate about the instruments they play, instead of it being a gimmick where I play everything just for the sake of it. I want to create a collaborative effort between musicians.

EL: Why are you moving to Montreal?

BA: I’m moving there to further my career, to get in a better working environment where I have more resources at my fingertips. I’m going to be in the studio full time there, and my friends from Last Night Collective are all there, so it’ll be a good creative place to be.

EL: How much of an inspiration is someone like the Weeknd?

BA: The Weeknd cleared the path for other up-and-coming artists of the same genre. It opens a lot of doors in terms of people being receptive to my music. I respect the Weeknd as an artist, and I love what he does, but it’s nice to be recognized on your own, too. Just because one artist was a pioneer, it doesn’t mean every artist that falls under that genre has to be compared to the original. I like to look at it more like each artist is bringing their own thing.

EL: How do you feel you’re developing as a singer?

BA: Even from when I put out the EP, the new stuff that’s about to be released is a pretty big jump in terms of the strength of my vocals. With the new stuff I’m writing now, I feel I’m progressing even further. I’m interested in coming into my own. I’d love to be an iconic singer, and it’s something that’s important to me, developing into that.

EL: Are you interested in the process of creating an entire Black Atlass persona?

BA: I’m interested in the idea of the artistic vision as a whole; I consider myself an artist in all aspects. The videos, the artwork, everything that goes into creating what people see and hear — it’s important to create a package. Everything is up in the air, but I’m looking forward to forming something completely around my vision. ■

Black Atlass opens for Plaster at Club Soda on Thursday Nov. 29, 8 p.m., $17/$22

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